Pentax MX – doing the “one camera” thing to aid a lack of inspiration

The Pentax MX has come to me at a strange time in my photography journey. It’s come to me when I’m at an all time low ebb both in terms of my inspiration to shoot and my inspiration to play with cameras. Despite these issues, I’ve still found the Pentax MX to be a relatively enthralling bit of kit – it’s been one of only a few cameras in my dwindling “collection” of camera stuff I’ve bought to write about that I’ve remained interested in shooting.

As such – with little sign of my lack of inspiration completely dissipating – I decided to embrace the small bit of favour I’ve found for this small bit of camera and start a bit of a series of posts about it. I’ve written about another SLR camera in this way before – last time it was about the Nikon F75 – and although back then my overall feelings toward photography were more positive, some of my motivations were the same.

To begin with, I felt as though I’d found a camera that I wanted to shoot a bit more than the just-enough it can take to write a review. I often enjoy the constant cycle of cameras – buy, review, sell, repeat – but I’m pretty much exhausted by that process at the moment.

Like with the Nikon F75, there’s also an element of committing to something outside of my usual comfort zone… and with this comes the all important learning bit. Spending time with that F75 helped me get to grips with using my good left eye to frame with an SLR. As I’ve mentioned a couple of times lately, using the few manual focus SLR cameras I’ve been shooting recently has now been helping me learn to focus with my good left eye too. It was a problem with my right eye that turned me off SLRs way back when, so it feels like a big thing to be finally overcoming this problem.

First Roll with a Pentax MX

I’ve been making progress too, but constantly switching from one camera to another, often with different types of focusing screens, has felt like it’s throwing me off course a bit. As soon as I feel like I’m getting used to one type of screen, I’m on to another.

Discovering the Pentax MX

I learned a long time ago that it doesn’t matter how much I think I know about cameras, the amount I actually know about all the models that have ever been made by every brand of 35mm cameras is probably a fraction of 1%. There is of course no way that I could possibly quantify that statement – it’s impossible to know how much I know, never mind how much I don’t… but sometimes I’m given reason to realise that there are quite profound holes in my knowledge.

The Pentax MX sat in one of those holes, and in fact appears to have been a bit of a blind spot for pretty much as long as my obsession with photography has been a thing. That is to say, I’ve only recently discovered its existence.

This might not seem particularly unusual, but I was previously quite sure that I was fairly au fait with this era of Pentax cameras. The Pentax MX is one of the “M-Series” cameras and lenses that Pentax manufactured between the mid 70s and mid 80s. A series known for the diminutive size of the kit, I was first made aware of them in the very early stages of my previous job in a camera shop.

When I started the job my first task was to take stock of all the old second hand film equipment that was languishing in the bottom of one of the cabinets. One of the cameras in that cabinet – in fact the one I was most taken with at the time – was the Pentax ME Super.

I used to read online about most of the cameras in the shop, and actually quiet specifically remember researching ME Super camera and the series of cameras it belonged to. Despite this, for one reason or another, the one camera in the range I must have somehow overlooked was the Pentax MX.

In overlooking it back then, it seems to have managed to stay off my radar for the subsequent 13 or so years. I guess when you think you know about something, it can become harder to learn that you don’t…? This all changed when was presented with one on a trip into London Camera Exchange in town. I walked into the shop, and in my usual fashion asked “what have you got that’s new and exciting?” – which roughly translates into “what have you got that’s old and that I specifically might like?”.

On this particular occasion, I was obviously in a fairly unresponsive mood, as when I was handed a silver Pentax MX by Gareth the store manager, I turned my nose up at it saying it wasn’t my sort of thing. Though I did leave the shop wondering how I’d never come across it as a model before.

Following on from this first encounter I then found myself experiencing quite a profound case of Baader Meinhoff frequency bias, and saw references to it pretty much everywhere I turned for the following week or so. Unfortunately, by the time my interest was piqued, the Pentax MX in the shop had been sold. That said, this was probably a good thing – it was a silver one, and really, by that point in time I had decided that I wanted a black one. I soon bought the one you see here off ebay…

First Roll with a Pentax MX

The attraction

So what, you might ask, turned me on to the idea of the Pentax MX? Well, I must be honest, the primary answer is in one of the original core values of this website – it’s a tiny camera. I much prefer smaller cameras, and the Pentax MX really is very small for what it is and does. In fact, as far as I can gather, it’s one of the smallest – if not the smallest – metered mechanical SLRs ever made… Yet another reason it’s so odd that it managed to stay off my radar for so long.

In actual fact, its small size is often seen as a con rather than a pro. The height of the body, and so the amount of camera given to grip, is really quite small. This doesn’t bother me at all really. My hands are fairly averagely sized I think – not big or small – but I’m able to hold onto it fairly comfortably. It’s nothing like as ergonomic or quite as easy to use as some of the bigger SLR cameras I’ve recently used – I can’t argue with that – but the benefit of the small size outweighs the handling “issues” for me.

Size and limitations

In fact, I’ve actually found significant benefit to me carrying a small, light, fully mechanical metered camera. As I said at the beginning of the post, I have been totally uninspired by pretty much everything recently. My working week has been little short of chaotic, so weekends have largely involved doing a fair amount of nothing.

The one thing that’s suffered most through all this has been my hobby-photography. I used to fit it into my home and work life, but it’s been squeezed out of both. What I’ve recently realise has happened is that I’ve lose the habit I had for snap-shooting. Whereas I used to carry a camera and take photos most days, I’m just not doing that anymore. I still often find myself with a camera, I’m just not using the things. Since having this realisation, I’ve decided I needed to rebuild that habit. But to rebuild it, I need to be very comfortable with the camera I’m taking out – or at very least have a camera that doesn’t feel like it’s getting in my way.

First Roll with a Pentax MX

Mechanical desires

I tried shooting a couple of point & shoot cameras, but they’ve just not really given me what I wanted. I love point & shoot photography, don’t get me wrong, but at the moment everything in my life feel so fleeting that I wanted to shoot a camera that would allow me to connect a bit with the process. The Pentax MX – being a fully manual, mechanical metered camera – allowed that quite nicely. Importantly, though, its small size allowed me to do that without the sense that I’ve been weighed down or inhibited in the way a bigger SLR sometimes makes me feel. In short, the Pentax MX provides what currently feels like the perfect balance of functionality and constraint.

First Roll with a Pentax MX

First Roll with a Pentax MX

First Roll with a Pentax MX

A successful first roll

As you can see, the shots from my first roll were really all just snaps. Now, I know a lot of people don’t see value in just snapping, but I really do. For me, photography is not just about the end result, I find the process of taking part enormously relaxing, if not meditative. I’ve quite genuinely not been as happy with my lot lately – that’s not to say I’m unhappy, I’ve just had a weight on my shoulders I’m sure most people experience from time to time. It might even be through simply missing finding the time to take photos, or it might be the work stress that’s causing me to not take photos in the first place. I’m not sure either way, but I’ve noticed it. More significantly though, I really noticed the positive feeling taking the odd minute here and there to shoot has given me.

I’ve shot another roll since this one too, and whilst I haven’t completely put down all the other cameras in the cupboard, I’ve mentally committed to shooting the Pentax MX unless some specific opportunity or need for another camera crops up. This might not sound like total commitment from the outside, but to me it’s made a big difference. Removing the “which camera shall I take out today” complication from an already low ebb of inspiration has definitely been beneficial!

So yeah, more thoughts to come about this diminutive little gem soon. As I’ll get to in a future review, it’s not the perfect camera – but for me, for now, it’s working really well and doing a good job at seeing me through – and hopefully helping me come out of – the biggest bout of a lack of inspiration in photography and cameras I can recall having. Wish me luck!

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60 thoughts on “Pentax MX – doing the “one camera” thing to aid a lack of inspiration”

  1. I love that camera too, I also think it’s the perfect balance between features and pleasure of use (even if in my opinion with a needle light meter it would be even more perfect!)
    I usually pair it with the M 28 mm f/3.5 that while not as small as the 40 pancake is still small and really sharp. It is cheap too, as it’s overlooked as it’s less sharp compared to the older (and a little bigger) K 28/3.5.

    1. Between Hamish and Josh Solomon on another blog, where’s the enthusiasm we all need to keep film alive! Seriously, you two are bumming me out.

  2. I love the MX, and like you, I think it is much more handsome in black. I have two pre-battered bodies – the usual dented pentaprism, and small amounts of brassing. I did once find a very cheap utterly immaculate body, but was so terrified of being the first person to scar it – I could not face the shame – that I sold it on at a useful profit.

    The size of the body is in fact very close to that of Leica Ms – I know this because soft Benser cases for Ms (my absolute drool-over favourite case – I have gathered half a dozen of them, over time) are just about a perfect fit for an MX – or an ME, MV, MV1, MG for that matter. Or the MEF, if you leave off the autofocus lens brick,

    [As useless information on the series – there was an MF, a very obscure half-frame version of the ME, intended for lab work. Had one once, never used it, flogged it on.]

    My only minor quibbles might be that I – like some others, I think – find the shutter speed dial of the MX rather too stiff to turn. You really have to take a firm group from the top and apply some serious torque – you can’t do that trick of rubbing the side of your finger against the dial while keeping your eye steadily on the finder. And I am in two minds about the shutter button; I find it a little too small, and much prefer the soft sweetness of the ME release, but on the other hand I like the way that I can quickly blip the MX release to flip up the mirror when I want to hand-hold a slow-speed shot.

    I am very glad indeed the MX is lifting you a little from your doldrums.

    For even more point-and-shoot simplicity I’d suggest the basic ME (those wee buttons on the ME Super can be fiddly and distracting) or any of those other automatic-only versions. There’s no sin in putting a really good lens on a basic cheapo body.


  3. I’ve got a handful of Pentax bodies. The MX happens to be the one I naturally grab when I go out. You’ve explained it well. Not the perfect camera, but solid, reliable (thus far) simple and small.

  4. And of course one of the benefits of such a small camera is that it is still small when you fit its half case. But more ergonomic and able to bounce better… obvs. I had an ME Super with 50/2 lens for about three years. That was it. Nothing else. Even now, if I pick it up, the muscle memory is such that I quickly forget I have a camera in my hands and I’m just mechanically recording what I see. I have an MX too now, a silver one. It must have been a work camera as it snicks, clicks and whirrs like only an MX that’s been very well used can. Usually they can be quite stiff things to operate. Good luck and have fun. Oh, and you do realise you will be falling in and out of love with photography for the rest of your life. It’s not a constant thing. Don’t try and force it. If you’re not seeing the picture, don’t fret. It will come back.

    1. For sure – it’s not the first time… Sometimes it feels like a more serious occurrence though, and this is the most serious for years

  5. I would recommend trying trying a Takumar 35mm f/3.5 with the MX, especially if you want a bit of added constraint: you’ve got the added step of manually stopping down the lens before firing the shutter. It probably feels much nicer to use (and definitely is sharper) than the 40mm pancake. In the end I sold all my Pentax SLR gear because rangefinders are smaller and nice to use if you want ~35-45mm FoV.

  6. ^^I forgot to say Hamish. Sell that awful pancake lens to an idiot on e:bay for too much money. Buy a SMC-M 50/1.7 for a third of the price and take your better half out with what’s left. The 1.7 is a is a crisp, clean, modern rendering 6/5 Ultron that just does the job whatever. And is the most underrated lens in the photo firmament, mainly because there are millions of them out there. It should make a change from ‘character’ lenses for you and also brighten up your MX screen. That 2.8/40 is an awful lens man. Truly. Do it.

    1. Interesting comments about the 40 mm 2.8. My copy is superb so either you got a bad copy, or are parroting comments you read on the internet.
      I like to find out for myself if gear is good or not instead of listening to passed down information.
      If the lens is bad, show actual samples of what it does that is bad. Ya know, pictures. I mentioned my very positive experiences with this lens on, and then a tonne of other people jumped in saying their one was great too. And could not understand where the ‘it’s awful’ comments came from. Perhaps one person got a bad copy? Or did not know what they were doing and blamed the lens?
      Hamish’s images look great to me. Where in his pictures does this lens look bad?

      Here’s an image with mine:

      And here is a 100% crop of the above showing the detail from this lens:

      1. As even our own eyes render differently, never mind each others, comparing ‘pictures’ isn’t going to take the discussion very far. Just in circles. Something that might be more meaningful in terms of discussion is how Mr Yasuo Takahashi, one of the greats of lens design to my mind, could produce both the quite sublime SMC -M 50 1.7, and the ergonomically, aesthetically and optically challenged SMC Pentax-M 40mm f2.8 within two years of each other. Admittedly it was the first ‘pancake’ in production, so you have to accept that perhaps the priority sent down from above was not one of ergonomics, looks or optical brilliance, but simply to create it. That is the greatness of the 40mm 2.8. It exists.

  7. Hi Hamish, is this really the smallest mechanical metered SLR how does it compare to the venerable OM1? Not that I’m going to jump systems, just curious. I always thought Oly had that title, that’s all. I feel for your lack of inspiration, I’m in a bit of a doldrums myself on that front so I’m stepping back a bit and doing some reading and learning. Just enrolled on one of the Magnum Learn courses, to see what that can spark. Good luck with your inspiration freeze. Cheers! Julian

  8. The small yet capable Pentax MX and Olympus XA2 have been my daily cameras for the past few years for the same reasons. The more likely I’m going to take them with me in my bag even if I don’t plan on taking photos, the more likely I will be able to capture that unexpected scene along the road. For me, it’s more about keeping that interest in photo taking alive through regular practice than by using the best gear.

  9. I wish you luck. The great thing about the one-camera game is that you can ignore the gear and concentrate on the shooting. Yes, wandering and snapping is soothing and healthy, but what you likely need to rekindle some inspiration is a project. I would suggest that such projects might best have little to do with the craft, or with art per-se. Look for a journalistic project. A question to answer. Perhaps some avenue related to history, science, current events, local peculiarities. Something you are genuinely interested in. Figure out a way to investigate this project and record the process with your writing and your normal lens. A fairly ambitious project might turn out to be absorbing and rewarding. Sorry if this all sounds a bit preachy, but this is where I want to be going Myself, even though I have decidedly not gotten over my own obsession with playing around with too many cameras. There is nothing wrong with experimenting, and the tools do matter, but all the faffing around with gear is also a distraction. Your Pentax MX is a superb journalist’s tool. It gets out of the way but is also quite versatile. Set yourself an ambitious journalistic task to chip away at, and publish the process here now and then. If you do so, maybe I will too. You may want to build a bit of perversity into the project, along the lines of “bird photography with a normal lens” that will push you out of a conventional approach from the start. But probably best not to set rules at all.

    1. I have actually started two local projects documenting burgeoning community interest companies – I’ll be sharing thoughts about that as soon as I’m allowed

  10. Had the Pentax MX recently on a one week trip on the IJsselmeer and was impressed by it’s simplicity, it’s size and weight. Used it with a Pentax-M 4/20mm lens which was a pleasure to frame with.

  11. What lenses have you used with the MX aside from the 40mm pancake? I can imagine that on a camera that’s known for being small and unobtrusive, mounting normally sized K-mount lenses may detract from the user experience far more than if you were using an average-sized camera.

    1. Most of the M series lenses were slightly smaller than their predecessors. I frequently have the not-terribly-well-reviewed 85mm ƒ2 on my MX (mostly because I like short teles) and it still feels quite nice. All of the 50’s feel good on it (I have the 1.7 and 1.4). And I have a 28, 35, and 135 which handle fine. Even the 135 is pretty darn small for a 135.

  12. That MX is very nice. I’ve got a Pentax ME Super which is a lovely small SLR, but it’s been suffering the known issue where the wind lever has to be operated more than once to load the shutter. Harrow Technical can fix that but I’m waiting to feel a little more affluent before I send it off to them. It’s a black Pentax LX that I would really like though but they are pricey. Regarding losing the inspiration to shoot, there’s a potential solution to that, Hamish. I was talking to a Fine Art student the other day, and her tutor had told her to stop painting for several weeks. This prevented her getting stale and fed up with it. She did find it frustrating, but when she re-started it was like she found a new lease of creative life.

  13. Yeah, to me the MX is the gem of the entire Pentax line. I prefer cameras with a simple over/under meter display compared to the shutter match-needle display that appeared on all the later aperture priority cameras. My favorite camera is a Nikkormat FTN, but the Pentax MX is a close second. In some way it’s nicer because the aperture view window allows you to see aperture in the viewfinder.

  14. The MX was my second camera, the first being the Pentax K1000, of course! Purchased a black MX new in 1982 along with the winder. Eventually moved on to a Nikon FM, then added a Nikon F2A before I graduated high school. Those Nikons are long gone but my black MX still sits on my shelf. Sadly, it’s no longer operational. While trolling MX’s one night on Ebay I noted the MX in chrome might be better looking than black.

    You did not mention the magic needle film loading system which is unique. A great camera.

  15. Yep, we all get those spells Hamish, and some cameras can snap (literally) you out of it. My 35mm tool of choice, which I just love to shoot, even if it’s nothing in particular, is the OM1n, so not a dissimilar choice to yours. I just love the ergonomics and simplicity of these types of cameras, they’re just really nice tools to operate and it makes me smile when I pick it up and operate it, no digital camera has ever had the same effect. On the flip side I also love the Pentax 67, admittedly it is a tad bigger and heavier, but the principle is the same, it doesn’t quite tick your box for being small and unobtrusive, but mechanically it’s just like the OM1n, it’s the Texas SLR, but it makes me smile and I love using it nonetheless. Chin up mate, it always passes, and camera therapy is as good as anything else in my experience.

  16. I have the exact same set up – black with that 40mm lens. This camera is so tiny, it slips into a coat pocket, and I also take a long the Pentax 28mm 2.8 in another pocket. Another tiny lens.
    I did add a grip from cameradactyl which retains the size but does help out. Super cheap too at $21 and very nice to hold.

  17. I’m glad you didn’t turn to a Holga to get you thru this rough patch.
    The MX was/is a fine camera…more for a creative person than a hard knock photojournalist.
    Back in the late 70’s, the push was for smaller, lighter cameras. Maybe they were onto something…recently I watched a local newspaper photographer with his digital Canons, a photo backpack and his tablet. He resembled a long suffering burro in a coal mine.
    Anyhow, looking forward to the MX review.

  18. Looking forward to the follow up articles! I’ve been shooting a lot of Pentax lately and I get the feeling they came at camera design with an ‘ergonomics first’ approach. My first KX test roll had shots on it that I would’ve probably missed with my Nikon F2 or FM. I would’ve spend precious seconds fumbling around with the “pull and twist” shutter lock for a start. The KX & MX aren’t perfect, but they’ve yet to frustrate me – and that goes a long way I find.

  19. I get completely what you say about the MX. I’m sure that there are lots of people who would say the Olympus OM1 would be a better choice but for me the shutter speed selector is in the wrong place on the OM1, other than that it is a top contender. The ME is a non starter for those fiddly buttons and the need for a battery.
    There is of course the Nikon FM series. but the one I’d suggest above all is the Contax S2, given your love for Zeiss lenses. It is pure and simple.

  20. A lot of what you say above makes sense to me. I too have been struggling too with finding my photography mojo; for different reasons I am sure. Spare time for me is a factor and despite having decided I have the ‘favourite’ set of cameras that fit my various moods and trying to sell all of the others (that I can bare to say goodbye to), I am really struggling to put commitment into any one camera or the cost of developing a roll if I complete one.
    Glad that you have found something to keep you going and not miss those moments when you are in the mood.

  21. I have an MX in a box gathering dust, while I use two different ME Supers (my first and always SLR) and an LX. I love the build of the MX, and the viewfinder is exceptional. My one problem with the camera that has been insurmountable is how tough it is to turn the shutter speed dial. What should be a one-finger operation, instead requires finger and thumb, and therefore a second hand to hold the camera while that adjustment is going on. Such a beautifully made camera, but that one dial suffers from being made just a bit too well.

  22. I’m going through exactly the same thing at the moment. I have a cupboard full of the world’s best film cameras and lenses that I just can’t be bothered opening anymore, an Instagram account full of banal photos of mine and others that I can’t be bother looking at anymore, and a long list of blogs reviewing an endless procession of cameras and films that I can’t be bothered reading anymore. It’s all just the same stuff rehashed over and over and over (this is clearly more my perception than the truth – but it’s my hole and I’m going to wallow in it, goddamnit!)

    My one saving grace is my kids. I know that I’ll kick myself if I don’t document family life just because I’m going through some sort of existential photographic crisis, so I force myself to always bring a camera along. But I’m going to do a big trim down of gear in the near future and probably just keep my 1V and 5D IV, which can happily share lighting and lenses. Everything else must go.

  23. I often find my self without inspiration to shoot in the autumn. I hate it! For me it often is due to a combination of work (I am not a pro-photographer thank God…), bad weather and shorter days. I feel that I have no time to get embraced with photography. The feeling always goes away after a couple of weeks – as I somehow adapt to the situation. Perhaps I should try a Pentax the next time, to shorten the pain…

  24. Both Pentax MX and Pentax ME are very nice and small cameras. In a test in an old Swedish Photo News paper was Pentax-M 2.8/100 the best short tele and portrait lens and had much better test results than Nikon Nikkor 2.5/105, Canon FD 2.8/100, Olympus Zuiko 2.8/100 and Minolta MD 2.5/100. Pentax-M 2.8/100 is av very good and small lens and is easy to cary together with Pentax MX or Pentax ME.

  25. I’ve had a few Pentax SLRs. I really love the build quality and the glass is amazing. I am yet to try the MX but have only heard good reviews on them and I mean it’s been unanimous.
    As most film shooters will recognise, because old SLRs are (until recently) relatively cheap I quickly accumulated a drawer full of them but I still pick up the same one or two each time. It takes a special effort to pick up one of the quieter ones that doesn’t scream for attention.
    With regards to the smaller form I did love my OM10 which is amazing so I can understand how holding a dinky SLR can be unsettling which might be why I’ve gone for the AE1-P and the Pentax Spotmatic.

    I do often go out with two but after reading this piece I think I’d benefit from trying a long term use of one of my lesser used bits of kit.

    1. I Don’t want to get you gassy but please try the Pentax M 35 2.8 – this is my favourite.

      A chap named vyoufinder did a couple of review vids on Yewtube on the M series.

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